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Hold the Obits on Nuclear Power

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This week marks the first anniversary of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plants. Predictably, some pundits have used the occasion to write nuclear energy’s obituary. But we’ve seen this movie before.

In the 1970s, nuclear power was just beginning to establish itself as a major energy source in America. Then came an energy crisis, cost increases, an economic downturn and an accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) in Pennsylvania. America’s nuclear energy industry was declared all but dead.

Yet, three decades later, it lives. Some might say it thrives.

True, no new nuclear plants were permitted after the 1979 accident — until this year. But nuclear energy never went away. At the time of the TMI incident, the U.S. had 72 nuclear power plants up and running. Today we have 104.

And nuclear power isn’t just about numbers. It’s about efficiency, too. In 1979, America’s reactors operated at an average capacity factor of less than 60 percent. That means the average nuclear plant spent 40 percent of that year not producing electricity.

Since then, the nuclear industry has figured out how to make its technology much more efficient. Today, nuclear plants routinely exceed capacity factors of more than 90 percent, making them among the most efficient energy sources available.

In the wake of TMI, energy production began shifting toward natural gas. Natural gas plants were less expensive, didn’t carry the political risk of nuclear power and were fueled by low-cost natural gas.

But as demand grew for natural gas, so did its price. By the early 2000s, energy producers began seeking cheaper alternatives. And a nuclear power industry that had spent the past 30 years refining its product was ready to be that alternative.

This renewed interest sparked major investment in nuclear power. Since 2007, the industry has filed 18 applications to build almost 30 new reactors. One of those permits has been issued already, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is reviewing 11 more. (Others were withdrawn.) In addition to plant permits, the NRC also is reviewing certification applications for new reactor designs, and a multitude of companies are working on new small modular reactor designs.

Now, once again, with cost estimates rising, natural gas prices dropping and public anxiety fueled by a major accident, some question whether nuclear power has a future.

The answer is a resounding “Yes,” if we learn the right lessons from Fukushima and implement the right policy reforms.

For starters, we should not assume that the mistakes made in Japan apply directly to the U.S. nuclear industry. It’s worth remembering that the United States has had no nuclear energy incident in more than 30 years and has never had one that resulted in deaths or other disasters.

After TMI, the U.S. nuclear community embarked upon a major reform effort. Government produced far-reaching new rules. Within the plants themselves emerged what has become known as a safety culture.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks also sparked significant regulatory reforms. Now, the accident at Fukushima has produced new lessons that will lead to additional changes in U.S. safety regulations. For example, the NRC is calling for new regulations to ensure the integrity of spent-fuel pools and the availability of adequate backup power.

We also will need reforms that allow for greater competition in energy markets. Though safety is critical, a major problem for nuclear power is cost. Costs have been driven artificially high by the government’s attempts to micromanage the nuclear energy industry. So long as politicians and bureaucrats trump market forces, nuclear power will never fully realize its potential.

This reform effort should concentrate on two areas: expanding the NRC’s technical expertise to regulate new technologies and introducing market forces to nuclear waste management.

Though there are no guarantees, nuclear power — despite much adversity — has proved to be much more than a survivor. The right reforms will open up markets to more abundant, more affordable and even safer nuclear energy.

Jack Spencer  is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Washington Times

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